“When everyone is dead the Great Game is finished. Not before.”
– Kim, Rudyard Kipling
The Great Game is alive and well and living in the cold, stony peaks of the Hindu Kush.
Ghost Wars is Steve Coll’s superlative account of the tangled morass of the last twenty-five years of byzantine manuvering, chaos and war on the Afghan frontier. The war against the Russians was conducted mainly through proxies – the Muhjaddeen and the warlords, the Pakistani government, and the quioxtic brillance of Massoud. Coll outlines the early rise of US policy towards the region, tracing carefully the gradual emergence and steady growth of US involvement as the Muhjaddeen war against the Russians gradually became a key element for US policy.
Coll judiciously examines the post-war American neglect of the region (literally dropping off of the policy radar screen overnight) and the sudden and abrupt roll-up of the CIA’s covert support operations (exacerbating the political vacuum), its impact on both the rise of the Taliban and the development of Al Quada and Osama Bin Laden.
Reading Ghost Wars amply demonstrates that none of the subsequent events of 9-11 was surprising in retrospect and that, bluntly, no one involved is a new or unknown player. Bin Laden in particular was amply demonstrating his direction, policy and goals but was initially overlooked and ignored, and later indifferently dealt with, despite mounting evidence of danger. Neither the Clinton nor the Bush (Jr. & Sr.) administrations escapes censure for their failure to recognize the approaching storm and the glimpse Coll offers into the inner workings of covert policy in the region both fascinates and frustrates.
Coll’s book is a must-read for anyone genuinely interested in understanding the complex interplay of history, politics, culture and religion in Afghanistan and is, on top of being exhaustive and comprehensive, an excellent, gripping, high-quality and well-written read. Highly Recommended!
Also of note, and previously reviewed on BookLinker is George Crile’s Charlie Wlison’s War.
You can find an free online copy of Rudyard Kipling’s classic Kim at the Gutenberg Project. I also heartily recommend Kipling’s The Man Who Would be King and the excellent film version with Sean Connery and Michael Caine.
Interested in the real Man Who Would be King? He did exist – check out Ben McIntyre’s biography of Josiah Harlen, ex-doctor, soldier-of-fortune, Prince of Ghur and pretender to the Afghan Throne (he also runs afoul of Flashman here…)
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